The Thing With Feathers

May 29, 2020

 

In 1965, a young black man from rural Alabama named John Lewis did something that I still find powerful and inspiring. You will probably remember that in 1965 John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama with a number of other civil rights activists, and entered living history. That John Lewis is still serving in Congress today and continues to inspire me with his dedication to justice and dignity, and I don’t mean to equate him with the John Lewis whose power so inspired me when I was eleven years old in 1965.

That John Lewis is the one born in Greenville, Alabama in August of 1939, not the one born 44 miles away in Troy, Alabama in February of 1940. Properly, the one I’m going to talk about here was named "Johnny Joe Lewis," but it’s still something of a coincidence that two men who did such great things in 1965 were both 25-year-old black men from central Alabama with such similar names.

Johnny Joe Lewis (who didn’t use his middle name—he was just "Johnny Lewis") was an outfielder for the New York Mets in 1965, who played more than half of his career MLB games in that year. He played in 148 of them in 1965, and he led the Mets in WAR and Win Shares in his only full-time big-league season, not a very high hill to climb, considering the low quality of that team that I followed so avidly. (For sheer intensity, as well as general dumbness, is there any level of devotion greater than that of an eleven-year-old baseball fan?) Johnny Lewis typifies an emotion we’ve all felt, that of filling us with hope that eventually (in Lewis’s case, by the next spring) gets dashed upon the rocks of reality but, at the time we feel it, is the most powerful force in the universe.

I really thought in 1965 that Lewis would become, in time, the Mets’ first homegrown superstar—and I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The lede to his SABR-bio (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/4f61cfc6) quotes the Cardinals’ manager Johnny Keane describing "the left-handed-hitting Lewis as ‘one of the few five-point players I have ever seen,’ and compared him to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente." (Keane was a bit of a tool himself, and I think he meant "five-tool player.") That SABR-bio is worth looking at, for a broad overview of his complicated life and career, which I’m not going to re-tell here. I’m going to focus instead on a single game, a single at-bat, a single pitch in the eleventh inning on the evening of June the 14th, 1965.

It’s rare how some careers, like Lewis’s or that of his teammate Bill Wakefield, that I told at length (some said far too great length) here a while ago, can be boiled down to a single pitch, which needs amplification and expansion and context, of course, to be understood properly, but it’s an approach I favor, the approach of particularity. I also like how I can describe my craziest dreams, like that of the 50-112 New York Mets becoming a World’s Championship-quality team, are based (in their case, quite solidly) on a foundation of truth: Lewis’s and Wakefield’s teammates included Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool, and Cleon Jones, as well as several other good young players who would perform on the 1969 ball team. I was wrong to feel assured that Lewis and Wakefield, and the 27-year old Charley Smith and the 25-year-old Ron Hunt and other Mets would be a part of that great future team, but it’s pleasing that my delusional thinking wasn’t entirely wrong. That’s the part that I find inspiring, that we can have crazy ideas that are built out of aspirations and wishes and dreams that are laughably nuts but that can also come perfectly true in our own short lifetimes.

I was just about to turn 12 on June 14, 1965, and I’m sure I didn’t stay up late enough to hear this single pitch on the radio. It was a school night, a Monday, and the game began at 8:05 in Cincinnati, meaning that the first pitch was thrown at 9:05 eastern standard time, around the hour I would be getting ready for bed. I’m sure I was thinking about a social-studies test the next day, or my singing role in the production of Oklahoma! my sixth-grade class was going to perform, or some other trivial provoker of anxiety rather than the Mets’ game that night, but I’m also sure I read about it after the fact in that week’s news coverage.

You can read the fine details here https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CIN/CIN196506140.shtml or here https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/june-14-1965-reds-jim-maloney-strikes-out-18-10-inning-no-hitter-then-loses-mets , but the highlights are these: Jim Maloney, the Reds’ star pitcher, threw a no-hitter against the Mets that night for ten full innings, but at the end of ten, had only a 0-0 tie to show for his efforts. In the eleventh, Lewis launched a bomb over the centerfield fence and the Mets ended up winning the game 1-0. Maloney struck out 18, to tie the single-game record for strikeouts at the time.

To get a little more granular, the count was 2 balls and 1 strike against Lewis, who had been up three times in the first nine innings and who struck out each time, swinging, looking, and swinging. This meeting between Jim Maloney and Johnny Lewis was a perfect storm for strikeouts: Maloney was the equal of Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Sam McDowell at the time for striking out batters at a record pace, while Lewis was a strikeout machine. In 771 career at-bats, or slightly more than one full season’s worth, he struck out 194 times, or slightly more than the record at the time for strikeouts in a season (175, by Dave Nicholson). (It wouldn’t be surpassed until 2004, when Adam Dunn struck out 195 times.)  Maloney vs. Lewis in 1965 was a world-class wind-tunnel.

But not on this next pitch.

Maloney threw a fastball, which is what he threw most of the time, aiming for the inside edge of the black. Two balls, one strike is a neutral count, favoring neither the pitcher nor the hitter very much—a ball in that spot creates a hitter’s edge, as a strike creates a big edge for the pitcher, and Maloney definitely threw it to get a strike, but a close one.

He missed his spot by an inch or two. "He did get it out over the plate on me," Lewis said afterwards, and Maloney agreed: "I was trying to keep the ball in on him and it got out just a little bit." Lewis belted the fastball on a line drive over centerfielder Vada Pinson’s head and over the centerfield wall. "I never saw a pitcher throw harder to me as Maloney did," Lewis said. "I wasn’t aware sure it was a homer. I kept running... until I saw the umpire signal." (That’s how the SABR-bio quotes the Cincinnati Enquirer’s next-day story, though I’m very "aware sure" that Lewis probably didn’t say "aware sure"—whether the transcription redundancy was Dick Forbes’ (the beat writer), or the Enquirer’s copy-desk’s, or SABR’s Gregory F. Wolf’s, isn’t worth my trouble to track down, as long as you know it wasn’t mine or Johnny Lewis’s. In other words, [sic].)

The home run was also sick. I’m sure Reds’ fans, and Reds, felt like puking, just as I felt exhilarated by Lewis’s feat. There’s something very strange about this feeling of knowing you’ve been thoroughly outclassed, defeated soundly by an opponent clearly superior to you, but somehow you emerged victorious while your world-class opponent took the loss. The best comparison I can make to this emotion was the one I felt when Ron Swoboda, four and a quarter years afterwards, hit two 2-run homers off of Steve Carlton on a night that Carlton struck out 19 Mets (breaking the record for strikeouts in a game), including Swoboda in his other two at-bats,  but lost the game 4-3 on those two pitches to Swoboda. "Man, did we get an ass-kicking last night," you marvel, "and we WON!" Strange, mixed emotions.

Swoboda, by the way, faced Maloney next after Lewis in the 11th inning, and struck out. I promised not to dwell on any pitches other than Maloney’s 2-1 fastball to Lewis, but my admiration for Lewis extended way beyond this single moment that formed the peak of his short career. In a sense, his greatest virtue as a ballplayer was not even his ability on offense—the most striking thing about Lewis’s game at the time was his throwing arm. He was nicknamed "The Gunner" (though I never knew that, nor heard it, at the time) and he was fifth in the NL for center fielders’ assists in 1965 with 6. What’s so extraordinary about that? There were 10 teams in the league in 1965, so fifth seems pretty ordinary, right?

Lewis wasn’t the Mets’ centerfielder, is what’s so extraordinary about the 6 assists. He was their regular rightfielder, as befits their outfielder with the strongest throwing arm, playing 100 games in right field. His total assists as an outfielder (he added 8 more in right field) were third in the NL, just behind Roberto Clemente who had 16 assists, and just ahead of Willie Mays who had 13, both in more games than Lewis. He came in just ahead of Clemente in Range Factor per 9 innings in RF that season. He started only 45 games in center field in 1965 (oddly, leading the team in both starts in right field and in center field—Jim Hickman is listed as their starting CFer, with 39 starts, since Lewis can’t be listed twice in baseball-reference.com’s starting team.)  Which is all to say, he was a very impressive fielder, a rarity on those early Mets’ teams.

I remember having visions for the 1966 season, in which I imagined that Lewis could play a Mays-like centerfield (he wore uni #24, btw), with Ron Swoboda settling in right field (Swoboda had set a Mets rookie record for HRs in 1965—he was my Pete Alonso. Seriously—in his first 27 games he was batting.300 and on a pace to hit 54 HRs and drive in 120 runs) and Cleon Jones in left, with an infield of All-Star Ed Kranepool  (he had made his only All-Star team in 1965) at first base, Ron Hunt at second base (Hunt had been an All-Star in 1964), rookie Bud Harrelson at shortstop (Harrelson would make the All-Star team in 1970 and 1971) and Charley Smith at third base. (Smith would never come close to making any All-Star team in any year, but he did hit 36 homeruns in his slightly less than two seasons as a Met, and was a special favorite of mine.)

Smith would be traded after the 1965 season for Ken Boyer, who had made a few All-Star teams, just a day after the Mets made another deal to complete my fantasy starting eight, acquiring a young starting catcher, Jerry Grote, who would make 1968’s NL All-Star team and whose main talent was handling the young pitching that would emerge but hadn’t yet been seen on the big-league level, except for a young Tug McGraw in 1965 and at the tail end of 1966, a very young Nolan Ryan. My fondest hope, pitching-wise, rested on the promising right arm of a young pitcher from Fresno, California, whose second big-league start in September of 1965 was a ten-inning, four-hit shutout of the powerful Braves, setting a team record of 13 strikeouts. No, this wasn’t Tom Seaver, but a Little League rival of Seaver named Dick Selma. Incidentally, Fresno seemed for a brief moment to be the 1960s pitchers’ version of San Pedro de Macoris for shortstops in the 1990s: within a few years,  Fresno would claim Seaver and Selma, as well as the Cubs’ young ace Dick Ellsworth and (to come full circle here) the Reds’ young ace Jim Maloney.

And to close out that full circle, Johnny Lewis would have the briefest MLB career of all the bright young Mets I’ve mentioned in this account (except for Bill Wakefield, whom I’ve mentioned far too often, and Ronnie Locke, whom I’ve managed somehow to omit so far in this account) though he exemplifies the principle I’m trying to discuss: hope is the finest quality of rooting for any baseball team, especially a very bad baseball team, and hope, unreasonable hope, sustains us through years that would otherwise seem unbearably filled with misery and despair.

And that thoroughly unreasonable hope sometimes, sometimes, sometimes ends up being borne out in the most satisfying of ways possible. That’s what I take from rooting for those early Mets, and even in this miserable time, when I’ve long since been disgusted and contemptuous of the Mets’ entire organization and the philosophical principles on which the team is run, I still have hopes for better days ahead.

 
 

COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

steve161
My recollections of a game I attended 55 years ago are less than razor sharp. I had just graduated college and had driven across Canada with two friends. From New York we drove back to California, so this was about the mid-point of the trip.

One of my friends was utterly uninterested in sports, but the other was a passionate Dodger fan, so, once we saw Koufax was pitching, we decided to go (we had no idea who this Tug McGraw might be). At this point in his career Koufax's elbow was swelling up during every start, so there were days when he wasn't dominant. If I remember right, he only struck out two Mets, and the decisive run scored on an error.

It was a big crowd and yes, it expressed itself. The Dodgers would finish some 47 games ahead of the Mets, so this was definitely an upset. But what I remember most vividly was the moths. We sat in the top deck, right under the lights (which at Shea were on the facade, not raised on standards). It seemed like every moth in Queens was getting drunk on the illumination.
8:20 AM May 31st
 
Steven Goldleaf
That one, I felt a little conflicted about. I was the biggest Koufax fan you ever met (still am), but I think I was a little tired of him beating the Mets ALL the time. Great game to have been at, I'd think. Crowd must have been jazzed.
11:22 AM May 30th
 
steve161
It's all a matter of perspective. I became a Cardinal fan at age 4 in 1948. The Cardinals' three previous titles came while I was being imagined, bottle-fed and weaned. They didn't win again until 1964 when I was a college senior.

Met fans didn't even have to wait a decade. Imagine being a fan of the Cubs, Red Sox, Phillies, etc etc etc. Admittedly none of our teams were quite as awful as the early Mets.

I'll bet this one got your hopes up, Steven. This is the only game I ever saw at Shea Stadium: https://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1965/B08260NYN1965.htm
8:44 AM May 30th
 
mpiafsky
It took me way too long to realize you weren’t going to circle around to review some new critical work on Emily Dickinson. Disappointing, but I enjoyed it anyway.
4:39 PM May 29th
 
Marc Schneider
"hope is the finest quality of rooting for any baseball team, especially a very bad baseball team, and hope, unreasonable hope, sustains us through years that would otherwise seem unbearably filled with misery and despair."

I suspect this may apply outside of baseball as well.
12:42 PM May 29th
 
Allen Schade
Hate the Mets.
Love your writing.
Remember Johnny Lewis.
Liked Kranepool
Forgot how good Maloney was
11:53 AM May 29th
 
MWeddell
There sure are a lot of famous people named "John Lewis" in history. This one used to be the famous one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_L._Lewis
11:23 AM May 29th
 
wovenstrap
I stand corrected. Apparently in 1913 the dividing line was Buffalo-Pittsburgh-Wheeling, which would put Ohio in the Central time zone. You can look at that map on Wikipedia. Not sure about '65 though.
11:07 AM May 29th
 
wovenstrap
Good point. Considering (most of) Indiana is currently in the Eastern time zone (and has been for decades), I'm skeptical that Ohio was ever not in the Eastern time zone.

Cleveland resident here btw.
11:04 AM May 29th
 
gregvanv
I love your old stories. When I was a kid in Cleveland in the 60's, I had little knowledge and exposure to the NL and the Mets were a distant legend. (Although the Indians at one time had an annual exhibition against I think Cincy and then later Pittsburgh.) Was Cincy ever really not in the time zone as Eastern? That I do not remember.
10:41 AM May 29th
 
 
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